How Indigenous outlooks can transform your organization

Five ways to integrate Indigenous-based practices into your organization to support innovation and enhance performance

VICTORIA, BC, Apr 17, 2014/ Troy Media/ – The outdoor education organization Outward Bound emerged during the Second World War to build resilience with merchant marine sailors. The German U-boats were sinking merchant vessels and younger sailors were perishing in the North Atlantic more than their more “grizzled” colleagues. What started as a boot camp to prepare the young sailors for the adversity ahead catalyzed a global movement.

Arriving in North America in 1962, Outward Bound took people out onto the land in the mountains of Colorado. The “solo” experience was introduced as a contemporary vision quest – a traditional Indigenous rite of passage ceremony where time was spent alone on the land to witness a vision of one’s life’s purpose. In Indigenous traditional wisdom this is a direct experience of/for one’s own authentic identity, providing insight into one’s talents and gifts. The vision quest has many examples throughout the diverse nations in North America, each focused on this authentic sense of purpose.

Whether with sailors, youth, or global bankers, this solo experience has remained the most visceral experience in all the organizational development processes that I have seen over the years. When team members are able to identify and honour their own authenticity, being grounded in a sense of life-purpose where one’s unique talents and gifts guide their words and actions, the entire organization functions better.

Having participated in traditional ceremony, I see how Indigenous leadership aligns with leading-edge organizational development approaches. Witnessing Indigenous groups relate though inclusive circles such that structural hierarchies don’t inhibit authentic expression is one area in which any organization can learn from Indigenous ceremonies and traditions.

Indigenous cultures are collectivist, providing everyone equal voice during discussion, paying respect to the diverse perspectives that arise. All input is weighed carefully and deliberately to gauge for authenticity and innovation. An Indigenous cultural paradigm has always existed, whereby novel and innovative ideas are honoured, encouraging creative solutions rather than recycling the same ideas.

These are five ways to integrate Indigenous-based practices into your organization to support innovation and enhance performance.

  1. Reflective Practice: Make space to invite the authentic gifts of each team member, and structure time to draw on these diverse strengths from your team integrating their gifts into organizational decisions. A related example is Google’s 20 per cent time, where one day of every five is dedicated to person interest projects, guided by the authentic vision of each knowledge worker.
  2. Circles of Inclusion: Replace brainstorming for working groups with Circles of Inclusion where each team member independently brings an idea or solution forward to the group. Build consensus around the best ideas by giving everyone a voice in the circle and building on the most creative and lucid ideas rather than those proposed by positional power.
  3. Seek the Council of Elders. Institutional knowledge and cumulative experience are invaluable. The role of Elders’ wisdom in Indigenous culture needs to be modeled effectively in organizations. Regardless of your position, ensure that you have wise council to ask good questions about important decisions so that you have thought through the broader implications from diverse and seasoned perspectives.
  4. Respect Your Grandchildren’s Grandchildren. Make sustainability central to all decisions. Indigenous perspectives recognize the long-term implications of all short-term actions. Think beyond the next quarter and recognize that every action has implications.
  5. Be Mindful. Everything that you say has an impact. Now more than ever, what we say, write, post, or tweet has resonant, and often unforeseen, implications. Indigenous traditions recognize that whatever we say has power and resonance.

So what we say and how we conduct ourselves ought to be authentic, not to squander our words or speak flippantly; but rather, we ought to consider our potential for vision, self-direction and discovery, no matter whether we’re merchant marines, global bankers, or Indigenous people on a solo vision quest.

Over 20 years ago I took a group of bankers from Bay Street and Wall Street into the rugged Coast Mountains north of Whistler to increase their personal and organizational proficiency managing global-markets.

Those bankers all had some form of personal revelation when spending time alone on the land. The land indigenized them, for the better. In support of organizational effectiveness, I continue to witness traditional Indigenous practices improve decisions in any collective.

By implementing these contemporary examples of Indigenous approaches, you can improve you organizational performance beyond your current vision. Look to the land to be your teacher.

Lee White is a Senior Advisor with GMG Consulting (Good Medicine Group), which works with Aboriginal communities and organizations, as well as government and resource-based industries, to support Aboriginal self-determination.

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